Don’t be fooled: Zimbabwe’s land reform is no success

| Jack Lewis
Demonstration at Zimbabwe embassy in London, 2006. Photo by TwoWings. CC-ASA-2.5.

It is election day in Zimbabwe. This is a good day to reconsider the Zimbabwean land reform experience and what to make of it, especially as we consider what should be done about land reform in South Africa.

When you think of Zimbabwean land reform, you think about the “fast track” reform from 2000 that saw the majority of commercial farms either broken up and handed in smaller allotments to about 125,000 small farmers and 50,000 larger small-holders, or grabbed by members of the Zimbabwean elite. How did this come about?

A little report in Tuesday’s Times is revealing. Erina Murwira, now in her 80s and living on the outskirts of Harare will be voting for the MDC. Why? “I stopped supporting Mugabe a long time ago … he has not taken care of us old people. He has failed us,” she said. She has not forgiven Mugabe for stopping her pension in the 1990s. To understand why Erina’s pension was stopped we need to understand why the fast track land reform became a political necessity for the ruling Zanu-PF dictatorship. It had little to do with justice and a new economic path, as some naive researchers have suggested, and everything to do with bloated plutocrats hanging on to the state at any cost.

Following independence in 1980, the new government in Zimbabwe resettled 52,000 families on 2.5 million hectares purchased from European commercial farmers. Plans called for the acquisition and resettlement of an additional five million hectares. Initially it was a great success. The UN’s Food and Agricultural Organisation reported that smallholder maize production doubled from 738,000 tonnes in 1980 to 1.3 million tonnes in 1986 and that underlying this was “the inheritance of a productive public agricultural research system, a quadrupling in the number of government-provided loans to smallholders, a sharp increase in guaranteed producer prices and a 30-fold increase in the number of Government Marketing Board (GMB) grain-buying depots and collection points.” The government also spent money on education and health.

Why did the government falter? A large part of the reason, and one that is given far too little importance by contemporary writers on Zimbabwean land reform, was the coup which Mugabe initiated in 1982 in Matebaleland against the Ndebele stronghold of Zapu, the main opposition party led by Joshua Nkomo. Over 20,000 people were butchered in the “Gukurahundi” and Mugabe’s regime became a de-facto dictatorship. It shocks me that most writers on Zimbabwe’s 2000 land reform, Mahmood Mandani being a notable exception, are largely silent on the anti-democratic nature of the Mugabe regime which has looted the Zimbabwean state for private gain.

By 1990, the government was broke with debt service obligations consuming 33% of its budget. Zimbabwe was obliged to seek help from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank which demanded structural adjustment. Erina Murwira’s old age pension was a casualty of these IMF imposed cuts. Markets were deregulated and public expenditure reduced. At the same time drought and poor agricultural yields further restricted government revenue.

Between 1991 and 1996 manufacturing shrank by 14% and GDP per capita declined by 5.8%. Government spending on education declined by over 30% as wages for teachers were slashed and health spending declined. In desperation it printed more money to keep social spending going, starting a vicious inflationary spiral, already 50% by 1999.

A parasitic ruling clique had by 1999 seized all organs of state. It was hugely unpopular and effectively lost the 2000 elections to the newly formed MDC: it was only the appointment of 30 seats from amongst the chiefs that gave Mugabe control of Parliament. It was this shock that precipitated the fast track land reform to shore up the rural vote which was in near revolt against Mugabe’s misrule.

The result of the land reform was massive economic dislocation. However, recently a group of researchers led by Ian Scoones in the UK has stimulated discussion on Zimbabwe land reform. Scoones found that many recipients of small holdings have in fact increased production and are better off as a result of receiving land.

It would indeed have been surprising if the perhaps 160,000 smallholder beneficiaries from among the very poor and 51,000 beneficiaries from among small and medium-scale black farmers had not increased production. But this increase in smallholder production, which is still wholly inadequate to feed Zimbabwe, has come at the cost disrupting the link between Zimbabwean agriculture and industry. It has further undermined state revenue and made impossible any of the support to smallholders that had been responsible for the large increases in production in the 1980-85 period.

Over a decade since the land redistribution, up to 70,000 households—-perhaps 350 000 people—remain displaced, living in poverty on the urban peripheries of Zimbabwe’s cities and towns. But the total displacement was far greater. Many more, perhaps two to three million, did not receive land and lost their livelihoods in the cities and were forced into economic migrancy, mainly in South Africa and Botswana. Many others were forced into labour tenancy, non-wage and casual work on the redistributed land. This loss of population has reduced domestic demand and contributed to loss of revenue for the state.

Loss of agricultural output from large scale farms not made up by small holders

Prior to land reform, Zimbabwe produced not only sufficient maize, wheat, and other grains, but a surplus was exported. Since land reform there has been a critical dependence on imports. Approximately 1.8 million tonnes of maize are required annually to meet the country’s needs against the current national yield of a little more than 300 thousand tonnes per year. Since 2000, there have been 13 consecutive years of food deficits and the United Nations has recently appealed for more than $100 million dollars to feed 1.7 million Zimbabweans in 2013. Production of wheat continues to be constrained by lack of access to inputs and an unstable power supply, arising from a bankrupt state that cannot maintain and invest in infrastructure.

It is a standard refrain from those arguing for the great gains made by smallholder agriculture that these figures are not to be trusted. But Zimbabwe’s Minister of Finance, Tendai Biti, wrote this year that “We have received the second crop assessment report, which records the unacceptable situation of a major decline in agricultural output… Our strategic grain reserve is less than 40,000 metric tonnes. We are in the process of importing 150,000 metric tonnes of maize from Zambia.”

One of the main contributing factors to agriculture’s massive decline is that the majority of the new farmers did not have the capital necessary to fund operations and could not access funding because of the chaotic manner in which the expropriations were carried out. The state claims title to all farmlands, only making land available to new farmers by way of leases. The state therefore denied those farmers the collateral security necessary to access working capital for farming operations.

Shrinking economy and job losses equals less state revenue and greater fiscal debt

750,000 jobs were lost between the peak employment in 1998 and 2011. Only 14% of the workforce has a paid, permanent job in the formal economy. Using the most generous definition of informal employment, at least half the workforce does not have a job. The collapse of the commercial farming sector has contributed significantly to a steep decline in state revenues, the collapse of state services and hyperinflation as the government desperately printed money to keep going, and eventually the abandonment of the Zimbabwean dollar in 2008 in favour of the US dollar and the rand.

A recent study by the Development Bank of Southern Africa found that the Zimbabwean government “currently employs an estimated 250,000 people generating a wage bill of more than US$960 million, working out at more than 70% of revenue collections, 60% of the total budget, and more than 15% of GDP.”

Zimbabwe Government Debt to GDP averaged 80% from 1990 until 2011, reaching an all time high of 151% in December of 2011. The relevance of this for land reform is that there can be no question of government support for infrastructure, veterinary and agricultural support services, grain silos, transport and so on—things that Scoones and others would agree are essential—because the state is bankrupt.

An economy driven into the informal sector and reliant on smallholding agriculture cannot provide the revenue to sustain a modern state. The mining sector, driven by foreign multinationals despite the enrichment disguise of “indigenisation” does not on its own do anything to promote local industry.

Of course the blame for all this does not lay solely with ZANU-PF and its ruling clique. If there had been greater international support for land reform, more willingness from large scale farmers to redistribute and support both small scale and larger black farmers as well as less pressure from the IMF, World Bank and the World Trade Organisation to liberalise and reign in expenditure on agricultural support, things might not have ended up as they have.

Be that as it may, it doesn’t change the reality that there is no independent small scale route to greater well-being once large scale commercial agriculture has been undermined. From an analytical point of view it seems Scoones and others seems happy to ignore all of this when discussing the impact of land reform, taking increased production and incomes for smallholders as if this is the only socially relevant criteria. It seems to me to be historically blind to argue that there is a Korean path for Zimbabwe. Korean land reform occurred with the United States fully committed to its success in an era of sustained global economic expansion and driven by cold war era concerns. None of these conditions pertain to Zimbabwe.

The meaning of all this for South Africa should be clear, especially when taken against the smaller proportion of the population dependent on the land for a living. Land reform requires the state to have the capacity to provide post settlement support, secure title and cheap capital. Zimbabwe shows that undermining the large farms undermines the capacity of the state to provide these things. Zimbabwe’s smallholders deserve a state that provides such support. And it cannot be a Zanu-PF-Mugabe state.

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TOPICS:  Human Rights

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